Inside the $22M facelift for the Colonial Building

By The Canadian Press Posted
July 28, 2014, CBC News – Newfoundland & Labrador

There’s a good story behind the spectacular ceiling frescoes now brought back to full glory as part of a $22-million restoration of Newfoundland’s former legislature.

The intricate patterns that embellish twin chambers where elected and appointed officials once governed the British colony turned dominion then Canadian province were painted by a Polish artist serving time for forgery.

NL Colonial Building 20140727
Restoration of the Colonial Building is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2015. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

It’s perhaps the least you’d expect from one of the most fabled buildings in St. John’s — a place that calls itself the City of Legends.

Jerry Dick, director of heritage for the provincial Tourism, Culture and Recreation Department, tells the tale of Alexander Pindikowski. The gifted artist wound up in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary for 15 months in 1880 after forging cheques.

Rather than have his talents go to waste, his sentence was partly commuted in exchange for creating resplendent ceiling murals at the Colonial Building and other prominent sites around the city.

“There are lots of interesting things about this building,” Dick said of the neoclassical structure that first opened in 1850. A triangular pediment dominates the exterior supported by six stone columns.

Project to be completed next year

The restoration to be finished by the fall of next year will transform the front lobby back to 1850 with faux marble and wood paint finishes considered among the finest of the day, Dick said.

Inside, the elected house of assembly and appointed legislative council chambers will be taken back to 1880 to showcase Pindikowski’s stunning handiwork.

“There will be the desks of the legislators and we plan to use this space for things like historical re-enactments,” Dick said. “We also see youth parliaments, debates and … even special sittings of the house of assembly.”

The storied site hasn’t functioned as a legislature since just before provincial politicians relocated to the Confederation Building in 1960. It served as the provincial archives until 2005 and has since been maintained but mostly empty.

The $22.3-million revamp is being largely funded by the province with the federal government contributing just over $9 million.

Escaping a riot

Dick clearly enjoys pointing out the building’s unique features. There’s the staircase down which former prime minister Richard Squires escaped on April 5, 1932 as a riot raged outside over suspected government corruption and mismanagement. Newspaper accounts described how Squires was chased by the crowd into a nearby residence from which he narrowly fled.  Read more…

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